TCU hopes to learn lesson, claim crown

Texas Christian was in this position a year ago, providing a good lesson for coach Gary Patterson and his team.

The Horned Frogs were picked to win the Mountain West Conference in 2006, and they lost to Brigham Young and Utah and finished second.

Here they are again as the media favorite, and Patterson points to last season as the reason not to start booking reservations for the Las Vegas Bowl — or even a Bowl Championship Series game.

“I think it puts some realism to the whole situation,” Patterson said. “Those kind of things don’t make any difference.”

Here is a look at the Mountain West, based on predicted order of finish by the conference media.

TEXAS CHRISTIAN

COACH: Gary Patterson (54-20, seventh year)

2006 RECORD: 11-2 (6-2 Mountain West, second)

OUTLOOK: TCU’s strong finish last season is one major reason the Horned Frogs are considered the team to beat. They won their final eight games, seven by double figures. TCU also returns nine starters from a defense that ranked second nationally in yards allowed (234.9 per game) and third in points allowed (12.3). End Tommy Blake, the league’s best defender, made 16 1/2 tackles for loss, including seven sacks. Andy Dalton, however, replaces quarterback Jeff Ballard, who was 19-2 as a starter.

QUOTING PATTERSON: “We’re excited about being picked in the top slot, but we also understand it’s not what you say in August, it’s what you say in December.”

KEY NONCONFERENCE GAME: At Texas, Sept. 8. If the Frogs win, they have an excellent shot at a BCS game.

KEY CONFERENCE GAME: At BYU, Nov. 8. This game could determine the Mountain West champion, and there is no doubt TCU remembers last season’s 31-17 loss in Fort Worth.

BRIGHAM YOUNG

COACH: Bronco Mendenhall (17-8, third year)

2006 RECORD: 11-2 (8-0 Mountain West, first)

OUTLOOK: Even though BYU loses top players such as quarterback John Beck, tailback Curtis Brown and tight end Jonny Harline, a sense prevails Mendenhall has this program rolling again. Having seven defensive starters back helps, and while the Cougars should contend for the conference title, they probably will fall a little short.

QUOTING MENDENHALL: “I think our players are carrying themselves like they expect to win.”

KEY NONCONFERENCE GAME: At UCLA, Sept. 8. A victory here would put the Cougars in position to possibly make a run at a BCS game.

KEY CONFERENCE GAME: Utah, Nov. 24. Sure, the Nov. 8 home game against TCU is more important to the conference race, but don’t tell that to BYU fans, who would rather beat the Utes, no matter the circumstances.

UTAH

COACH: Kyle Whittingham (15-10, third year)

2006 RECORD: 8-5 (5-3 Mountain West, tied for third)

OUTLOOK: Nine starters return offensively, including quarterback Brian Johnson, who missed last season with a knee injury. The Utes, though, will have to find a way to replace do-everything safety Eric Weddle, the two-time conference Defensive Player of the Year.

QUOTING WHITTINGHAM: “It’s going to take three or four guys to fill (Weddle’s) shoes.”

KEY NONCONFERENCE GAME: At Oregon State, today. The Oct. 5 game at Louisville should draw more publicity, but that meeting will mean less if the Utes open with a loss to the Beavers, expected to be one of the top Pac-10 Conference teams.

KEY CONFERENCE GAME: At BYU, Nov. 24. The memory of BYU quarterback John Beck’s game-winning 13-second work of art — a play that would be shown over and over if the game had been on ESPN — is seared into the Utes’ minds.

NEW MEXICO

COACH: Rocky Long (52-57, 10th year)

2006 RECORD: 6-7 (4-4 Mountain West, fourth)

OUTLOOK: Tailback Rodney Ferguson, who rushed for 1,234 yards last season, gives New Mexico one of the conference’s best ground games. The Lobos, are usually known for defense, but that unit ranked next-to-last in the league in 2006. Ten starters return, but the loss was safety Quincy Black, who led the team with 114 tackles.

QUOTING LONG: “We think we have a chance to compete for a conference championship.”

KEY NONCONFERENCE GAME: At Arizona, Sept. 15. The Wildcats appear to be on the rise, so this would be a quality victory for New Mexico, which has a good chance to be 2-0 entering this game.

KEY CONFERENCE GAME: BYU, Sept. 29. The Lobos very well could be 4-0 going into this league opener. A victory would be a strong statement to the Mountain West.

WYOMING

COACH: Joe Glenn (21-26, fifth year)

2006 RECORD: 6-6 (5-3 Mountain West, tied for third)

OUTLOOK: The switch to quarterback Karsten Sween saved the 2006 season, leading to victories in five of the last seven games. But the Cowboys were left out of the bowl picture despite qualifying. Sween is back, and so are six other offensive starters to go with a defense that ranked ninth nationally last season.

QUOTING GLENN: “I really think that the switch at quarterback was the spark that we needed.”

KEY NONCONFERENCE GAME: At Boise State, Sept. 15. The Cowboys gave the eventual Fiesta Bowl champion a tough game last season before falling 17-10. Playing at Boise State will be much more difficult, but it would be a signature victory if Wyoming pulls it off.

KEY CONFERENCE GAME: At Colorado State, Nov. 23. Not only is this Wyoming’s biggest rival, but the Cowboys might be fighting for a bowl berth in the season finale.

COLORADO STATE

COACH: Sonny Lubick (105-65, 15th year)

2006 RECORD: 4-8 (1-7 Mountain West, tied for eighth)

OUTLOOK: Lubick is on a rare disappointing run. His Rams have not put together a winning season since 2003, and finished last year with seven consecutive defeats to tie UNLV in the conference cellar. There is hope in that tailback Kyle Bell is back after missing last season with a knee injury. He rushed for 1,288 yards and 10 touchdowns two years ago.

QUOTING LUBICK: “Everybody knows last season, especially, was a tough one. I really feel confident about this group. Of course, you can’t talk about it. You have to go out and do it.”

KEY NONCONFERENCE GAME: Against Colorado in Denver, Saturday. This would be the key game no matter the situation, but it’s even more so this time. As the season opener, it would be an indication of whether Colorado State can get back to its winning ways.

KEY CONFERENCE GAME: Utah, Oct. 27. There is a chance Colorado State will be on a little roll after games against San Diego State, Air Force and UNLV. Playing the Utes begins a difficult three-game stretch that could determine the Rams’ season.

AIR FORCE

COACH: Troy Calhoun (first year)

2006 RECORD: 4-8 (3-5 Mountain West, tied for sixth)

OUTLOOK: Calhoun follows Fisher DeBerry, who over his 23 years made the Academy consistently one of the nation’s tougher teams. Calhoun said he plans to run an offense similar to the triple option DeBerry operated, but there will be more emphasis on the passing game. Quarterback Shaun Carney completed 59.9 percent of his passes last season for 1,192 yards and 12 touchdowns.

QUOTING CALHOUN: “I think it’s an offense that certainly suits the talents of our players, especially Shaun. I think that’s always imperative. Make sure you’ve got a system, which we do, and yet with that, there’s enough flexibility that allows you perhaps from week to week to game plan some, too. And yet, ultimately, the part at the Academy where you win is just on raw determination.”

KEY NONCONFERENCE GAME: At Navy, Sept. 29. The Commander-In-Chief’s Trophy is a bigger deal to Air Force than the conference championship, and Navy halted the Falcons’ domination by taking the title among service academies the past four seasons.

KEY CONFERENCE GAME: At Utah, Sept. 8. Don’t expect Air Force to show much of its offense in the opener against South Carolina State. Against Utah, the Falcons might open the play book much more.

SAN DIEGO STATE

COACH: Chuck Long (3-9, second year)

2006 RECORD: 3-9 (3-5 Mountain West, tied for sixth)

OUTLOOK: Ten offensive starters return, including quarterback Kevin O’Connell, who has the job to himself after Kevin Craft transferred. But there are a lot of problems to correct. San Diego State ranked last in the Mountain West in scoring offense, rushing defense and total offense.

QUOTING LONG: “We had a much better offseason than we did year in year one.”

KEY NONCONFERENCE GAME: Cincinnati, Sept. 29. As usual, the Aztecs don’t play the easiest nonconference schedule, but this is a winnable game. It’s one the Aztecs almost have to have.

KEY CONFERENCE GAME: At UNLV, Nov. 10. If the preseason predictions are correct, this game could decide which team stays out of the Mountain West basement.

UNLV

COACH: Mike Sanford (4-19, third year)

2006 RECORD: 2-10 (1-7 Mountain West, tied for eighth)

OUTLOOK: The Rebels will try to reverse a pattern in which they have won only two games each of the past three seasons. Redshirt freshman quarterback Travis Dixon starts the first game, and UNLV also will rely on tailback Frank Summers, a former California back and junior college All-American. The Rebels, though, were last in the conference in scoring, passing and total defense, as well as turnover margin.

QUOTING SANFORD: “We don’t care about where anybody rates us or any of that stuff. We’re excited about this season. … We are an improving football team. It is a hungry football team.”

KEY NONCONFERENCE GAME: At Utah State, today. With a brutal early schedule that includes games against Wisconsin, Hawaii and BYU, the Rebels must win this game.

KEY CONFERENCE GAME: San Diego State, Nov 10. See the Aztecs’ capsule.

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